Before I lose the better part of my audience to a technicality, I must mention that I’m fully aware Memorial Day is not exactly the beginning of summer. However, the few (and unlucky) New Yorkers who did stay in the city for the holiday will agree with me – summer is back, and it’s more horrible than we could have ever imagined. The perpetual sweat, exaggerated odors and unaffordable electric bills have arrived, and there’s little we can do.
The biggest and most difficult adjustment I’ll have to make will be in my relationship with Chinatown. The hot, soupy dumplings that once got me through the winter are of little use when the temperature spikes above 80. In fact, they’re borderline dangerous. Fortunately, though, the Chinatown has a cure… actually, two cures: The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, and Sweetberry.
The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, located on Bayard right next to Xi’An Famous Foods, calls its product “ice cream with a Chinese twist,” and there’s really no better way to describe it. It’s one of Chinatown’s oldest businesses (though still under 30), and is one I’ve ignorantly ignored for years. I’ve always thought of traditional ice cream as a very American thing, and figured that the Factory, like Haagen Dazs around the corner, was only there to intercept Chinatown’s less adventurous visitors.
But the Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory is so much more. Among more traditional flavors, the shop mixes lychee, taro, red bean, and even durian (proceed with caution here) ice cream right on the premises, paying homage to the cuisine its neighborhood celebrates. The store is small, large enough to fit maybe 7 or 8 people at a time. There are no tables, no seats, no warm cup of tea upon arrival… you come for good old fashioned ice cream, and that’s it.
Get a scoop of red bean to start ($3.49). It’s 100% authentic (we’ve mentioned before that many Chinatown shops use red bean paste), and achieves the perfect blend of sweet, creamy, and gritty. The black sesame is a perfect partner (additional scoops are less), and was the biggest surprise for us. Traditionally a dessert soup served hot, the ice cream is loaded with bits of sesame that manage to mix perfectly with the sweet, savory ice cream. Unless you want to join the kids crying over their empty cones and fallen sidewalk heroes, order your scoops in a dish. And for the real New Yorker – top your ice cream with the Knicks-themed sprinkles – called Linsanity, naturally.
Hang a left on Mott and walk another half block, and you’ll arrive at Sweetberry, our next oasis in this desert of cooked concrete. If the Ice Cream Factory does ice cream with a Chinese twist, Sweetberry does it with frozen yogurt. Since you’re in Chinatown, and since you’ll have read this, start with lychee yogurt. You’ll then move on to one of the greatest spreads we’ve ever seen – Sweetberry’s toppings. From Jellies to Mochi to Chinese Fruits, the topping bar is one of the most unique and exciting in the city.
To keep it under five bucks, grab a small and top it with mango mochi and strawberry coating juice. The rice-based mochi is soft and chewy, a perfect compliment to the creamier frozen yogurt. On the other side of the equation is the “strawberry coating juice,” something I’ve never come across before. Though they look strikingly similar to fish roe, I decided to give them a cautious chance. Anyway, they ended up being the single most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me. Each one is packed with tart strawberry juice, exploding when you bite down on them, filling your mouth (and truthfully, your day) with pure joy.
Though the arrival of the burning sun has put some of my favorite Chinatown dishes on the back burner (or back bamboo steamer), I’ve discovered that this neighborhood has everything you need to survive the summer. And while you may not have expected Chinatown to have such a robust dessert economy, the years have proven that some of the best ice cream in the city can be found here (the Chinese’ll tell you they invented the stuff, anyway). Similarly, the recent arrival of Sweetberry has shown that even frozen yogurt can adjust to the neighborhood’s unique flavors. The streets will be sweltering and the mochi may melt fast, but there’s little reason to avoid celebrating Chinatown over the next few months.